NEW ORLEANS - The previous time the Buffalo Bills hit the road to play the Saints, they had to go to San Antonio.
The Superdome, and much of New Orleans, were in shambles following Hurricane Katrina, and the Bills and their fans could not have been blamed at the time for wondering if their team would ever play in the Big Easy again.
On Sunday, the Bills (3-4) head to the renovated Superdome for the first time since 1998, when then-Buffalo coach Wade Phillips led a playoff team to a 45-33 victory over the Mike Ditka-coached Saints.
How times have changed.
Seven seasons have passed since current Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone decided to join the staff of a rookie head coach named Sean Payton as the Saints returned to storm-battered New Orleans.
Three-plus seasons have passed since the Saints won their first Super Bowl — a title which came one season after Marrone left to become a college head coach at Syracuse.
In the meantime, the Saints (5-1) have shed their long-held reputation as a franchise for which success seldom came and proved tough to sustain.
"They're a great team. They have been for a while," Bills running back Fred Jackson said. "It's an extremely tough challenge to go down there and beat them, but it's one we are looking forward to."
The NFC South-leading Saints have pole position to pursue a fourth playoff appearance in five seasons.
They're also rather difficult to defeat in the Big Easy, where they are 16-4 (including playoffs) since 2011, 12-0 under Payton, who was suspended in the NFL's bounty probe for all four losses last season.
On top of that, the Saints are fresh off a bye and eager to rebound from their only loss this season at New England two weeks ago.
"When we leave off the way that we did, having a kind of bitter taste in our mouth going into the bye when we had a chance to be 6-0," receiver Lance Moore began, "We're looking forward to getting back on that field."
Here are five things to know about the Bills-Saints matchup:
UNBALANCED OffenceS: The strength of Buffalo's offence has been its ground game. Buffalo rushed for 120 or more yards in each of its first six games before being held to 90 last week. The only problem for them is that top running backs Jackson (knee) and C.J. Spiller (ankle) have been hobbled lately.
The Saints have struggling on the ground, ranking 22nd in the league. Drew Brees has made up for much of that, leading a second-ranked passing game which averages 311 yards.
COMPETITIVE BILLS: While Buffalo is a game below .500, two losses came by three or fewer points and another by seven.
"We like what we have going on here and the guys we have in this locker room," the Bills' Jackson said. "We feel like we can compete with anybody."
QB PRESSURE: The Saints have expressed concern about Buffalo's ability to affect quarterbacks with pressure up front and opportunistic defensive backs. The Bills have an NFL-high 12 interceptions and their 23 sacks — including 10 by end Mario Williams — were tied for fourth heading into Week 8.
"Those usually kind of go hand-in-hand," Payton said of Buffalo's sacks and interceptions. "If the clock is quick for the quarterback it benefits the back end. That's certainly one of the challenges this week."
BREES' TARGETS: As much as the Saints love what Jimmy Graham has accomplished this season, Brees has plenty of other options. Receiver Lance Moore was practiced fully this week after missing three games, Marques Colston is always a threat and veteran tight end Benjamin Watson showed two weeks ago that he can convert big plays as well. Speedy rookie Kenny Stills caught his touchdown pass in New England, and Nick Toon is a big target with good hands. Any of them could see more action with Graham hobbled by a left foot injury.
"Jimmy does some things that only he can do, but we will be able to come in and do whatever is asked of us to make sure the offence runs smooth," Watson said.
POISED BACKUP: Buffalo quarterback Thad Lewis brings little experience but plenty of poise to the Buffalo offence, Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins says.
"We saw him get hit in the Miami game and the whole helmet came off and everything, but he stayed in the pocket, he took the hit and he moved on," Jenkins said. "It hasn't rattled him. This quarterback definitely has some poise. You can tell that his team believes in him even though he doesn't have that much experience."
Promoted from the practice squad, Lewis is 1-1 as Buffalo's starter, completing 62.5 per cent of his passes for 418 yards with two TDs passing and one TD rushing.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
© Copyright 2013